Millions of Idled Acres Getting Another Look

Agriculture, wildlife and conservation groups expect a conference next week in St. Louis to be where the U.S. Department of Agriculture lays out its plan for dealing with vast amounts of land contracts in the Conservation Reserve Program.

Agriculture, wildlife and conservation groups expect a conference next week in St. Louis to be where the U.S. Department of Agriculture lays out its plan for dealing with vast amounts of land contracts in the Conservation Reserve Program.

More than 1,000 people are expected at the White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation, which will focus on successful projects that use incentives to encourage conservation practices. That's the heart of the Conservation Reserve Program, the largest farm conservation and environmental program, the goal of which also is to keep marginal cropland out of production. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns will speak at the event. The White House has not confirmed whether President Bush will attend.

Farm groups and USDA employees say they expect a plan to stagger renewal contracts for CRP acres, starting in 2007. The plan calls for using an environmental index approved by farmers, environmentalists and conservationists to determine whether acres are accepted into the program.

"It would just make sense if we want to do conservation with incentives, that we do that in a way that achieves the benefits that you are after," said Don Parrish, the Farm Bureau's senior director of regulatory relations.

The USDA will pay about $1.4 billion this year to keep 35.2 million acres of farmland largely idle. Contracts are scheduled to expire for more than 16 million acres in 2007 alone.


Farmers enrolled much of that 16 million acres in the mid-1980s at the height of the farm crisis, when borrowing costs rose and land values crashed. The debate now is whether that land is good enough to be put back into production.

Under a proposal explained to several farm groups last week, the USDA will most likely offer automatic 10-year enrollments to lands that score in the highest 20 percent on the environmental benefits index, which gives points for meeting objectives such as protecting wildlife habitat, reducing erosion and protecting water quality. Land that scores lower on the index would be offered graduated extensions in the program depending on their rank.

"Every indication is they are not only going to enroll the best, but maybe give extensions on a graduated scale," Parrish said.

In Nebraska, nearly half of the state's 1.2 million acres of CRP enrollment could expire in 2007. The western Nebraska counties of Banner and Kimball account for more than 107,000 acres that could expire that year.

President Bush, while campaigning for re-election at a Pheasants Forever event in Minnesota, announced his support for the CRP by declaring that the enrollment should be bumped up to 39.2 million acres, as written in the 2002 farm bill. At that time, Bush announced his support for re-enrolling the 2007 acres, as well as more than 10 million acres set to expire the following two years.

Pheasants Forever expects CRP to be a major focus of next week's conference. It wants the USDA to abide by the president's commitment.

"One of the things I'm going to be watching for in this announcement is a commitment from the administration for a fully enrolled CRP," said Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever. "That basically was one of the main points the president made when he came to Minnesota."

Hunting groups like Pheasants Forever are among the strongest advocates of CRP because the idle farmland is converted to grass, which becomes nesting ground for wildlife.

Grain and food-processing companies have said that they would prefer to see a large number of CRP contracts expire and that only acres providing the greatest environmental benefits be re-enrolled. A coalition of lobby groups in the processing industry argues that more acres should be in production to sustain the demand for food ingredients and other processed-grain products such as ethanol.

Agri-businesses want competitive bidding for the acres, no automatic enrollments and better targeting to get real environmental benefits.

"We are simply idling too much land that is not environmentally sensitive," said Jim Bair, a spokesman for the North American Millers' Association. "We want a real hard look to be taken at these lands."

More production also drives down the grain prices.

Young farmers searching for land to rent or smaller producers wanting to expand can be frustrated with the volume of land locked up in CRP. In Nebraska, for instance, CRP can pay farmers $52.79 an acre, which may be enough to make a farmer decline to rent it.

"The land they (young farmers) could potentially rent, which tends to be the most marginal ground, they can't rent because the neighbor stuck that into the CRP," said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union.

The USDA is considering applying its environmental benefits index to score land already in the program. Acres scoring highest would be automatically enrolled for another 10 years. Lower-scoring lands would be given extensions on a graduated basis, allowing the USDA to go back and re-evaluate whether tracts fit the program's objectives.

Farm groups such as the Farm Bureau also don't want acres automatically enrolled.

"We believe strongly that land retirement programs need to be focused on lands that are very difficult or hard to farm in an environmentally sensitive way," Parrish said.

Other farm-related groups, such as the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, agree.

"Just because some property has been in for 10 or 20 years it may not be the best land for environmentally targeting today," said Ferd Hoefner, a member of the coalition who also serves on the USDA's Young and Beginning Farmer Committee. "If they just re-enrolled every acre every time it comes up, they have essentially just turned it into an entitlement."

Some groups propose putting greater emphasis on water quality, which is a component of the CRP.

"The quantity issue is clearly one that is going to be more important as demand for water increases not only for agriculture, but also nonagriculture use," Parrish said.

Acreage nationally scheduled to expire from Conservation Reserve Program contracts from 2006 to 2010.
--2006 -- 195,000 acres
--2007 -- 16 million acres
--2008 -- 6.05 million acres
--2009 -- 4.26 million acres
--2010 -- 2.174 million acres

The amount of CRP acre contracts set to expire in 2007 for Nebraska and surrounding states and the percentage that acreage accounts for in each state's total CRP enrollment:

--Colorado -- 1.353 million acres (58 percent)
--Iowa -- 19,600 acres (27 percent )
--Kansas -- 1.612 million acres (54 percent)
--Nebraska -- 560,263 acres (46 percent)
--South Dakota -- 729,180 acres (49 percent)
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency Web site

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